Workplace facilities and environments can help workers exercise during off-hours

Study suggests employers can promote workers’ activity levels by highlighting amenities near or at work

Published: April 26, 2018

Despite the known benefits of regular exercise, over half of adults fall short of getting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.

Recognizing that most working-age adults spend a third or more of their day at work, some employers try to play their part to promote exercise among their staff. They offer wellness programs and facilities such as fitness classes and shower rooms, or they promote nearby facilities such as sports fields and bike paths.

Do these offerings support workers’ physical activity levels outside of work? A new study led by Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Mustard Fellow Dr. Aviroop Biswas suggests they do. The study is now available as an open-access article in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports (doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.03.013). Findings were also shared at an IWH Speakers Series presentation in November 2017.

The study found that leisure-time exercise levels were higher among workers who had access to some combination of the following facilities at or near work: a pleasant place to walk, playing fields, a gym, fitness classes, organized team sports, showers/change rooms and programs to improve health. Indeed, off-work exercise levels were twice as high among workers with access to all of these workplace facilities as they were among workers with access to none of them.

The study was based on a nationally representative survey of 60,650 workers who responded to the 2007-2008 edition of the Canadian Community Health Survey, a wide-ranging survey that Statistics Canada conducts every two years. This edition included questions on leisure-time exercise activity and access to wellness programs and facilities at or near the workplace.

The survey showed that 76 per cent of workers reported having access to at least one exercise-promoting workplace facility. This is good news, says Biswas. It indicates a large majority—about three-quarters of workers in Canada—have access to some combination of facilities and programs at work.

A locker room

However, the study also pointed to differences in access: the one-quarter of workers with little to no access to these facilities were more likely to be non-white, be born outside of Canada, have a low education level, have a low income, hold a physically demanding job, work more than 40 hours a week, and have poor physical and mental health. These individuals often face many barriers to participating in exercise and are among the most physically inactive, explains Biswas. For example, they may live in unsafe neighbourhoods, have less spare time if they work multiple jobs, or find gym memberships and sporting activities unaffordable.

Our findings suggest that workplaces can have an important role in increasing the exercise levels among those who need it most, but they need to do more to reach these individuals, says Biswas.

Examining combinations of amenities

Finding that leisure-time exercise levels were higher among workers with access to exercise-promoting facilities at or near work was one thing. But understanding whether these increased activity levels were related to this workplace access was another. Applying innovative research methods, Biswas and his team found that increased leisure-time exercise was linked to the availability of two different combinations of workplace facilities: having access to all the workplace facilities mentioned, and having access to a combination of a pleasant place to walk, showers/change rooms and programs to improve health.

We are not completely sure why certain combinations of exercise-promotion offerings are linked to workers being more physically active, but we have some hunches, says Biswas. The most diverse offering—all the possible facilities—would clearly appeal to the broadest group of workers, as it has something for everyone. The second combination—a pleasant place to walk, showers or change rooms, and wellness programs—though much more limited, also encourages different types of activities for different people.

For example, pleasant surroundings may encourage some people to take walks during their lunch breaks, whereas showers and change rooms may encourage others to engage in more rigorous exercise before or after their shifts, he explains.

Biswas notes that, in another study based on the same survey sample, older workers were more likely to cycle to work when they had showers and change rooms available to them at their workplaces. No such link was found in younger age groups. That study was published in January in the Journal of Applied Gerontology (doi:10.1177/0733464818755313).

The findings of both studies should be encouraging, says Biswas. A sizeable number of Canadian workers have access to offerings that promote exercise. Some of these offerings do not require a large upfront investment by the workplace. Rather, they can tap into the features that exist in the workplace already or in the surrounding areas to promote exercise among workers.